Tag: Flour

Delicious southern buttermilk biscuits

Delicious southern buttermilk biscuits

Our recipe for biscuits is really very simple, with flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, unsalted butter and buttermilk. And it took a leap into high quality when we decided to fold and roll the biscuit dough, like you do when making croissants. Otherwise, it is much like hundreds of other recipes.

If you add salt, why do you use unsalted butter? Because unsalted butter has much less water in it than salted butter and works much better for pastry.

There have been a spate of articles in the past few months about why Northerners can’t make biscuits as good as Southerners do (and here we mean the Southern and Northern United States.)  See also “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits.

flour-bleached-self-risingOne such article “Here’s why Southern Biscuits are Better” explains that southern cooks use a soft wheat flour like White Lily which has a much lower protein (and gluten) content, about 8-9 %, while an all purpose flour like King Arthur can be 11.7%. King Arthur All Purpose flour is close to bread flour which is 12.7%, while White Lily has the texture of cake flour, which is 6.9% to 7.1% for various brands.



Well, the authors of the two articles above point out that Southern biscuit makers use the low protein White Lily Flour, which is only available in the southern U.S., despite being distributed by Smuckers. You can, of course, buy it on line for a premium price and we did, to see what the difference really is.

[If you want to create a substitute for White Lily flour, you can mix ½ cake flour (7%) with ½ Gold Medal All Purpose (10.5%), which gives you a flour that is 8.75 % protein.]

Our Northern Recipe

We made our biscuits using our normal recipe:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Unsalted butter, 1/3 cup or 2/3 stick or 76 g
  • About 1 cup of buttermilk

In our recipe, we mix all the dry ingredients, and then cut in the butter using a pastry blender (or two forks).  Then, we add the buttermilk and mix it in with a fork and roll out the dough. We recently found that we had a pastry marble, which helps keep the butter cold, and we rolled out the dough on the marble. Then, and this is significant, we folded the dough into thirds and rolled it out again. We repeated that twice more, thus making more buttery layers within the biscuits. The resulting biscuits are excellent.

Southern Biscuits

White Lily Flour is commonly sold as Self-Rising, which means that every cup of flour has 1 ½ tsp baking powder and ½ tsp salt already added. White Lily is also bleached, which weakens the gluten a bit more, so this could also change the biscuit characteristics. (You can buy the non-leavened version as well.)

The recipes we looked at simply vary in the quantity of flour and shortenings. This one is pretty typical.

  • 2 ½ cups self-rising flour
  • 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen
  • 1 cup chilled buttermilk.

The one difference is that the butter is frozen and you shred it in a box grater or a food processor. We found that it took so much kinetic energy to shred the butter in the box grater, that the it began to soften, so we switched to the food processor instead.

foldedAs before, we mixed the butter in with the pastry blender and added the buttermilk. One cup is a bit stingy, and we added a bit more buttermilk to make a workable dough. We rolled out the dough as before, (on our pastry marble) and folded it into thirds and rolled it out 3 times as before. Some recipe writers claim that you should cut out the biscuits without twisting your biscuit cutter, so we did that too for both batches. This may be just an old custom without a lot of science behind it, though.


We baked both biscuits for 10 minutes at 450˚ F. The White Lily ones were a bit taller since there was more flour in the dough recipe and thus the dough was a bit thicker when rolled out on the marble. So we baked these Southern biscuits a bit longer until they began to brown.

both baked

How are the biscuits different?

The King Arthur biscuits are a little darker and the White Lily a little lighter, because the White Lily flour is bleached. But the taste and texture of the two are very similar. Since we had to cook the taller White Lily biscuits a bit longer, the bottoms were a bit thicker and crunchier than those from King Arthur flour. However, see below on this point.

both split

The crumb and texture of the two biscuits are very similar and both quite tasty. (See the picture at the top of the article, as well.) We just didn’t find much difference. The secret seems to be the layers of butter from folding and rolling, and both biscuits have that nice buttery flavor.

crisco butterWe also tried making the White Lily biscuits using the recipe on the flour package, which commenters on the existing recipes said worked perfectly. It differs only in that the butter is replaced by Crisco. The biscuits are very pretty,  but pretty tasteless. The recipe suggests that you brush the biscuits with melted butter as shown. It doesn’t improve them much.

2 cups white lilyTo reduce the number of biscuits to the number we could roll out, we made the recipe again using just 2 cups of White Lily flour and 2/3 stick of shredded frozen butter. These were very good, but, frankly, no better than the King Arthur flour recipe.

cold butterFinally, we made the White Lily biscuits using cold, but not frozen butter, much as we made the King Arthur biscuits. These biscuits were not as tall or “layery.” Apparently the lower gluten flour affects this layering and you need frozen butter to achieve this effect with White Lily.

Our conclusion is, if you live in the South where you can buy White Lily Flour for about $2.50 for 5 pounds, go for it. But in the rest of the country, use All Purpose Flour and unsalted butter, and you will be very happy with the results.

both with eggs




How much flour is in a cup of flour?

weigh flourConsider the measuring cup. As you know, a cup is a convenient way to measure liquids like water or milk or wine. But it is not so convenient for solids like beans, cranberries or flour. And yet in the U.S. most recipes call for flour measured in cups.

The reason for this are historical and somewhat political according to Bee Wilson in her delightful book Consider the Fork. After the French set out in 1793 on an expedition to measure the length of the Earth’s median, they took one 10 millionth of that measure to be the length of one meter. (It turned out it was just slightly off, but very good for the time.) The standard meter was agreed upon in 1889.

Obviously the British and Americans wanted their own non-French measures, and the British adopted, for a time, the Imperial system of measures, including pints, pounds and gallons. Not to be outdone, the Americans chose an even older gallon/quart/pint/cup measure as their standard.

Today the metric system has been adopted by nearly every country in the world other than the U.S., Myanmar and Liberia.

But what about that cup? It is a volume measure, and flour varies a lot in volume depending on how it’s packed.

We took out our inexpensive Ozeri kitchen scale (it cost $15.95) and decided to weigh the flour in a cup of flour. But how to measure it?

When Fanny Merritt Farmer wrote her original Boston Cooking School cookbook, she emphasized that you scoop out the flour and then level off the cup with a knife to make a level cup measure.

That’s one way, but what about sifted flour? Lots of baking recipes call for sifted flour, and while it is intended to remove lumps, it also aerates the flour significantly, and a cup of sifted flour weighs quite a bit less than a cup of flour scooped from the canister.

And finally, some cookbooks suggest that after sifting the flour, you should spoon it into the cup to avoid recompressing it. Here is what we found:

  • 1 cup scooped flour – 5.05 oz (143 g)
  • 1 cup sifted flour – 4.45 oz (126 g)
  • 1 cup spooned, sifted flour 4.13 oz (117 g)

As you can see, a cup of sifted flour weighs almost 12% less than a cup of scooped flour, and the spooned, sifted flour about 18% less. This is a huge difference in a baking recipe!

We tried these same measurements on a more expensive Weight Watchers kitchen scale. It’s more durably made (and costs 3-4 times as much). It also allows you to convert food weights to Points Plus values, but it gets exactly the same results.

So what do you do?

First, you need to recognize that there is a huge difference in the amount of flour you use depending on whether it is sifted or not when you cooking.

But should you use a scale in the kitchen? It is surely easier to use if you are adapting recipes from other countries. And the recipes in Modernist Cuisine are all in grams. But for American recipes couched in cups, you really have no idea how many grams of flour they mean.

It’s also way easier than sifting the flour to get the right amount. Just weigh out 126 g and you’re done! This is the way we do it now. It’s so much faster.

Mostly, it is important that you are consistent in your techniques and regard the measuring cup as an aliquot rather than an absolute measure. If you repeat the recipes the same way every time, it really doesn’t matter how many grams of flour you are using. Just remember that “sifted” flour means “less” flour.